Public Ethnography Workshop

Honoré Daumier - L'Émeute (The Phillips Collection,Washington, DC)

May 26-28, 2014
Didier Fassin, Organizer

Social scientists using ethnography as their main method of research get, through their long-term and in-depth approach of their fieldwork, a unique understanding of the social worlds they study, whether a village, a neighborhood, a hospital, a prison or a religious group. Their work often remains in the academic realm, but sometimes becomes exposed to and discussed by wider audiences, which can be either general or specific publics, such as professionals, policy-makers or activist organizations. One can name “public ethnography” this process. Such “publicization” involves two dimensions. The first one consists in “popularizing”, that is, rendering the work accessible to non-specialists): it is a form of translation. The second one consists in “politicizing”, that is, making this work part of a debate on certain issues: it is a form of engagement.

Interesting discussions have recently concerned public sociology and, to a lesser degree, public anthropology. The approach proposed here is different from two perspectives. First, it does not involve a discipline, but a method, which can be used in various disciplines, such as anthropology, sociology, political science and legal studies. Second, it is not normative, attempting to promote such engagement with the public, but analytical, trying to comprehend the problems and challenges associated with it. Indeed, making ethnography public poses specific questions:

1. What sort of public, or publics, or counterpublics are involved in public ethnography? What can be known about them and what remains ignored? How do specific circumstances produce specific publics?

2. What sort of intellectual field and public sphere are implied by public ethnography? How national histories of the academe and its relationship with society and politics shape differently the possibility of a public ethnography in our countries?

3. What is considered to be essential to convey through public ethnography, in terms of information, knowledge, ideas, methods, critical sense? What is left aside as unimportant or unsayable or inaudible? What self-censurship is exerted?

4. How do the media used by public ethnography contribute to its expression, whether it is newspapers columns, social media, oral interventions, documentaries, films, etc.? How much is the format determining the content, or the reverse?

5. What collaborations are imagined, with communities, groups, journalists, unionists, lawyers, policy-makers, etc.? How are the reactions of the public, such as misunderstanding, denial, ignorance, criticisms, incorporated in the scientific work?

The workshop convenes social scientists from four continents to address these various questions.

Workshop Participants

Nadia Abu El-Haj (Barnard College, Columbia University)

Jonathan Benthall (University College London)

Lucas Bessire (University of Oklahoma)

João Biehl (Princeton University)

Gabriella Coleman (McGill University)

Manuela Ivone Cunha (University of Minho)

Vincent Dubois (Strasbourg University)

Didier Fassin (Institute for Advanced Study)

Kelly Gillespie (University of the Witwatersrand)

Ghassan Joseph Hage (University of Melbourne)

Sherine Hamdy (Brown University)

Federico Neiburg (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro)

Unni Wikan (University of Oslo)

Workshop Texts and Schedule